Tuesday, January 25, 2011


The question I am most frequently asked about Interaction Ritual (IR) theory is whether new electronic media are changing the conditions for IRs. After all, what allows an IR to be constructed is assembling human bodies in face-to-face interaction. Further ingredients are the rapid back-and-forth of micro-behaviors (voice tones and rhythms, bodily movements); focusing attention on the same thing and thereby recognizing mutual intersubjectivity; feeling the same emotion or mood. When these ingredients reach a sufficiently high level, they intensify through a system of feedbacks: emotions grow stronger; bodily gestures and voice patterns become closely coordinated, down to the level of micro-fractions of a second. A successful IR builds up to a condition of high entrainment in a shared rhythm that Durkheim called collective effervescence. At high levels, this is what humans experience as the most powerful force in their lives; it constitutes the great moments, and shapes their most deeply held views and values. Thus human action is oriented around the attractiveness of different situations of social interaction: we are motivated towards those that are more successful IRs, and away from those that are mediocre or failed IRs. The human world is organized as a landscape of centers of social attraction, repulsion, and indifference.

What happens, then, when more and more of our interaction takes place at a distance, mediated by mobile phones, text messages, computer posts to a network of perhaps thousands of persons? When interaction is mediated rather than face-to-face, the bodily component of IRs is missing. In the history of social life up until recently, IRs have been the source of solidarity, symbolic values, moral standards, and emotional enthusiasm (what IR theory calls Emotional Energy, EE). Without bodily assembly to set off the process of building IRs, what can happen in a mediated, disembodied world?
There are at least 3 possibilities. First, new kinds of IRs may be created, with new forms of solidarity, symbolism, and morality. In this case, we would need an entirely new theory. Second, IRs fail; solidarity and the other outcomes of IRs disappear in a wholly mediated world. Third, IRs continue to be carried out over distance media, but their effects are weaker; collective effervescence never rises to very high levels; and solidarity, commitment to symbolism, and other consequences continue to exist but at a weakened level. 

Empirical research is now taking up these questions. The answer that is emerging seems to be the third alternative: it is possible to achieve solidarity through media communications, but it is weaker than bodily, face-to-face interaction. I argued in Interaction Ritual Chains, chapter 2 [2004] that mediated communications that already existed during the 20th century-- such as telephones-- did not replace IRs. Although it has been possible to talk to your friends and lovers over the phone, that did not replace meeting them; a phone call does not substitute for a kiss; and telephone sex services are an adjunct to masturbation, not a substitute for intercourse. When meaningful ceremonies are carried out-- such as a wedding or funeral-- people still assemble bodily, even though the technology exists to attend by phone-plus-video hookup. Research now under way on conference calls indicates that although organizational meetings can be done conveniently by telephone, nevertheless most participants prefer a face-to-face meeting, because both the solidarity and the political maneuvering are done better when people are bodily present.

The pattern turns out to be that mediated connections supplement face-to-face encounters. Rich Ling, in New Tech, New Ties [MIT Press, 2008] shows that mobile phone users talk most frequently with persons whom they also see personally; mobile phones increase the amount of contact in a bodily network that already exists. We have no good evidence for alternative number two-- solidarity disappearing in a solely mediated world-- because it appears that hardly anyone communicates entirely by distance media, lacking embodied contact. It may be that such a person would be debilitated, as we know that physical contact is good for health and emotional support. The comparative research still needs to be been done, looking at the amount of both mediated and bodily contact that people have; moreover, such research would have to measure how successful the IRs are which take place, in terms of their amount of mutual focus, shared emotion, and rhythmic coordination. Face-to-face encounters can fail as well as succeed; so we should not expect that failed face-to-face IRs are superior to mediated interactions in producing solidarity, commitment to symbols, morality, and EE.

Compare now different kinds of personal media: voice (phones); textual; multi-media (combination of text and images). Voice media in real time allow for some aspects of a successful IR, such as rhythmic coordination of speaking; voice messages, on the other hand, because there is no rapid flow of back-and-forth, should produce less solidarity. There is even less rhythmic coordination in exchanging messages by text; even if one answers quickly, this is far from the level of micro-rhythms that is found in mutually attuned speech, taking place at the level of tenths of seconds and even more fine-grained micro-frequencies of voice tones which produce the felt bodily and emotional experiences of talk. Adding visual images does not necessarily increase the micro-coordination; still photographs do not convey bodily alignments in real time, and in fact often depict a very different moment than the one taking place during the communication; they are more in the nature of image-manipulation than spontaneous mutual orientation. Real time video plus voice is closest to a real IR, and should be expected to produce higher results on the outcome side (solidarity, etc.), although this remains to be tested.

Many people, especially youth, spend many hours a day on mediated communication. Is this evidence that mediated interactions are successful IRs, or a substitute for them? I suggest a different hypothesis: since mediated IRs are weaker than bodily face-to-face IRs, people who have relatively few embodied IRs try to increase the frequency of mediated IRs to make up for them. Some people spend a great deal of time checking their email, even apart from what is necessary for work; some spend much time posting and reading posts on social network media. I suggest that this is like an addiction; specifically, the type of drug addiction which produces “tolerance,” where the effect of the drug weakens with habituation, so that the addict needs to take larger and larger dosages to get the pleasurable effect. To state this more clearly: mediated communications are weaker than embodied IRs; to the extent that someone relies on mediated rather than embodied IRs, they are getting the equivalent of a weak drug high; so they increase their consumption to try to make up for the weak dosage. Here again is an area for research. New kinds of electronic media appear rapidly, and are greeted with enthusiasm when they first spread, hence most of what is reported about them is wild rhetoric. The actual effects on people’s experience of social interaction are harder to measure, and require better comparisons: people with different amounts of mediated communication, in relation to different amounts of embodied IRs (and at different levels of IR success and failure); and all this needs to be correlated with the outcome variables (solidarity, symbolism, etc.)

Theory of IRs is closely connected with sociological theory of networks. Networks are usually conceived on the macro or meso-level, as if it were an actual set of connecting lines. But seen from the micro-level, a connection or tie is just a metaphor, for the amount and quality of micro-interaction which takes place between particular individual nodes. What we call a “strong tie” generally means people who converse with each other frequently about important matters-- which is to say, people who frequently have successful IRs with each other. A “weak tie” is some amount of repeated contact, but with less strong solidarity and emotion--- i.e. moderate IRs. With this perspective in mind, let us consider two kinds of electronic network structures: those which are node-to-node (an individual sends a message to another specific individual-- such as email); and those which are broadcast, one to many (such as posts on a blog or social media site). Popular social media in recent years have created a type of network structure that is called “friends”, but which differs considerably from traditional friendships as taking place through embodied IRs.

Traditional embodied IRs can be one-to-one. This is typically what exists in the most intimate kinds of friendships, such as lovers, partners, or close friends. In Goffman’s terms, they share a common backstage, where the nuances and troubles of how they carry out frontstage social performances are shared in secret. In my formulation, close friends are backstage friends. An intermediate type of friend might be called a “sociable friend”, someone who meets with others in an informal group (such as at a dinner table or a party); here the conversation is less intimate, more focused on items of entertainment, or in more serious circles, discussing politics or work. Research on networks indicates that most people have a very few intimate friends (sharing backstage secrets), and perhaps a few dozen sociable friends.

What then is the status of “friends” defined as those with whom one exchanges posts on a social media site, typically with hundreds or thousands of persons? This is a broadcast network structure, not one-to-one; thus it eliminates the possibility of strong specific ties. In addition, because these interactions do not take place in real time, micro-coordination does not exist; no strong IRs are created. It is true that persons may post a good deal of detail about their daily activities, but this does not necessarily lead to shared emotions, at the intensity of emotional effervescence that is generated in successful IRs. Pending the results of more micro-sociological research, I would suggest that broadcast-style social media networks have generated a new category of “friendship” that is somewhere on the continuum between “sociable friend” [itself a weaker tie than backstage friend/strong tie] and “acquaintance” [the traditional network concept of “weak tie”]. The “social-media friend” has more content than an “acquaintance tie”, since the former gives much more personal information about oneself.

As yet it is unclear what are the effects of this kind of sharing personal information. The information on the whole is superficial, Goffmanian frontstage; one possibility that needs to be considered is that the social media presentation of self is manipulated and contrived, rather than intimate and honest. This is nothing new; Goffman argued that everyone in traditional face-to-face interaction tries to present a favorable image of oneself, although this is mostly done by appearance and gesture, whereas social media self-presentation is based more on verbal statements, as well as photo images selected for the purpose. One could argue that Goffmanian everyday life interaction makes it harder to keep up a fake impression because flaws can leak through one’s performance, especially as emotions are expressed and embarrassment may result; whereas a social media self-presentation gives more opportunity to deliberately contrive the self one wants to present. It is so to speak Goffmanian pseudo-intimacy, a carefully selected view of what purports to be one’s backstage.

It is true that young people often post things about themselves that would not be revealed by circumspect adults (sex, drugs, fights, etc.). But this is not necessarily showing the intimate backstage self; generally the things which are revealed are a form of bragging, claiming antinomian status-- the reverse status hierarchy of youth cultures in which official laws and restrictions are challenged. Nevertheless, talking about illicit things is not the same as intimate backstage revelation. To say that one has gotten into a fight can be a form of bragging; more intimate would be to say you were threatened by a fight and felt afraid, fought badly, or ran away. (The latter is a much more common occurrence, as documented in Randall Collins, Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory, Princeton Univ. Press, 2008.) To brag about one’s sex life is not the same as talking about the failures of a sexual attempt (again, a very common occurrence: David Grazian, On the Make: The Hustle of Urban Nightlife, Univ. of Chicago Press, 2008). The antinomian selves posted by many young people are a cultural ideal within those groups, not a revelation of their intimate selves. In fact research here would be a good site for studying the contrived aspect of the presentation of self.

Let us consider now the relationship between IR theory and social conflict; and ask whether the new electronic media change anything. Consider first the personal level, as individuals get into conflicts with other individuals, or small groups quarrel and fight each other. In the early days of the Internet, people used to frequently insult each other, in so-called “flame wars”. The practice seems to have declined as participation in the Internet has become extremely widespread, and people configure their networks for favorable contacts (or at least favorable pretences, as in spamming). Insulting strangers whom one does not know face-to-face fits quite well with the patterns of violent conflict [Collins, Violence]: violence is in fact quite difficult for persons to carry out when they are close together, and is much easier at a distance. Thus in warfare, artillery or long-distance snipers using telescopes are much more accurate in killing the enemy than soldiers in close confrontation. Contrary to the usual entertainment media mythology about violence, closeness makes antagonists incompetent; they often miss with their weapons even if only a few meters away, and most antagonists are unable to use their weapons at all.

I have called this emotional pattern “confrontational tension/fear”, and have argued that this difficulty in face-to-face violence comes from the fact that violence goes against the grain of IRs. Humans are hard-wired in their nervous systems to become easily entrained with the bodily rhythms and emotions of persons they encounter in full-channel communication; hence the effort to do violence cuts across the tendency for mutual rhythmic coordination; it literally produces tension which makes people’s hands shake and their guns not to shoot straight. Professionals at violence get around this barrier of confrontational tension/fear by techniques which lower the focus of the confrontation: attacking their enemy from the rear; or avoiding the face and above all eye contact, such as by wearing masks or hoods.

Thus, to return to the case of conflict over the Internet, it is easier to get into a quarrel and to deliver insults from a distance, against a person whom you cannot see. Internet quarrels also have an easy resolution: one simply cuts off the connection. This is similar to conflict in everyday life, where people try to avoid conflicts as much as possible by leaving the scene. (The style of tough guys who go looking for fights applies only to a minority of persons; and even the tough guys operate by micro-interactional techniques which enable them to circumvent confrontational tension, especially by attacking weak victims. The fearless tough guy is mostly a myth.)

On the individual level, then, electronic media generally conform to larger patterns of conflict. What about on the level of small groups? Little groups of friends and supporters may get into conflicts in a bar or place of entertainment, and sometimes this results in a brawl. The equivalent of this in the electronic media seems hardly to exist. There are fantasy games in which the player enacts a role in a violent conflict--- but this is not a conflict with other real people; and furthermore it is in a contrived medium which lacks the most basic features of violence, such as confrontational tension/fear. Violent games only serve to perpetuate mythologies about how easy violence really is. In my judgment, such games are more of a fantasy escape or compensation for the real world than a form of preparation for it.

It is not clear from sociological evidence that gangs use the social media much. A major component of the everyday life of a criminal gang is the atmosphere of physical threat. Although gang members do not engage in a lot of violence statistically-- contrary to journalistic impressions, murders even in very active gang areas hardly happen at a rate of about 1 per 100 gang members per year [evidence in Collins, Violence p. 373]-- but gangs spend a great deal of time talking about violence, recalling incidents, bragging and planning retaliation. Moreover, gang members have territory, a street or place they control; they must be there physically, and most of their contacts are with other persons in their own gang, or its immediate surroundings. Gang members are very far from being cosmopolitans, and do not have wide networks. Studies of network usage rarely show gang members involved. (There are some incidents of gangs monitoring a neighbourhood information network, to see who is away from home so that their houses could be burglarized; but this is more in the nature of using the Internet to locate victims, rather than for ties within the gang.) I would conclude that gangs are too concerned about maintaining a high level of solidarity inside their group, and with physical threat against outsiders, to be much concerned with weak-IR media.

Let us consider another level of conflict, that involving official or formal organizations. On one side are hackers, individuals who use their electronic expertise to hack into an organization, either purely for the sake of disruption, or for financial gain. Sociologists and criminologists know relatively little about hackers. They do not appear to be the same kinds of people who belong to gangs; as indicated, gangs are very concerned about their territorial presence, and are most concerned to fight against rival gangs; hackers seem to be from a different social class and are more likely to be isolated individuals. (This needs investigation-- do hackers connect with each other via the internet? Are they underground groups of close friends? Some are probably more isolated than others; which type does the most hacking and the most damage?)

On the other side, officials also use electronic media to attack and counter-attack. Leaving aside the issue of how organizations defend themselves against hacking and cyberwar, the point I want to emphasize is that official agencies of control have an abundance of information about individuals who most use electronic media. Especially social networking sites, where young people post all sorts of information about themselves, are vulnerable to police, as well as employers and investigators; as many na├»ve youth have discovered to their disadvantage, their antinomian bragging can get them disqualified from jobs, or even arrested (for example, by contact with forbidden porn sites.). 

Sociologically, it is best to conceive of the electronic media as a terrain on which conflict can take place between different forces. For many people, especially youth in the first flush of enthusiasm for new possibilities of connections and self-presentation, the electronic media seem to be a place of freedom. But this depends on the extent to which official agencies are constrained from invading the same media channels in search of incriminating information. Here the electronic media have to be seen in the perspective of surrounding social organization: political and legal processes influence how much leeway each side of the conflict has in being able to operate against the other.

The technology of the media is not a wholly autonomous force; it is chiefly in democracies with strong legal restrictions on government agencies that the electronic media give the greatest freedom for popular networks to operate. It is sometimes argued that network media favor social movements, allowing them to mobilize quickly for protests and political campaigns; thus it is claimed that the network media favor rebellions against authoritarian regimes such as China or Iran. But these same cases show the limits of electronic networks.

One weakness is that networks among strangers are not actually very easy to mobilize; social movement researchers have demonstrated that the great majority of persons who take part in movements and assemble for demonstrations do not come as isolates, but accompanied by friends; a big crowd is always made up of knots of personal supporters. It is this intimate structure of clusters in the network that makes political movements succeed; and their lack makes them fail. Thus electronic media are useful for activating personal networks, but are not a substitute for them. (This parallels Ling’s conclusion about mobile phone: that they supplement existing personal contacts rather than replacing them.)

A second weakness of electronic networks for mobilizing political protests is that a sufficiently authoritarian government has little difficulty in shutting down the network. China and Iran have shown that a government can cut off computer servers and mobile phone connections. The more democratic part of the world can protest; and the commercial importance of the Internet gives the protests some economic allies. But mere disapproval from the outside has not been a deterrent for authoritarian regimes in the past. It is not at all impossible that a Stalinist type of totalitarian dictatorship could emerge in various countries. The multiple connections of the electronic media would not prevent such a development; and indeed a determined authoritarian government would find the Internet a convenient way of spying on people. Especially as the tendency of technology and capitalist consolidation in the media industries is to bring all the media together into one device, it would be possible for government super-computers to track considerable details about people’s lives, expressed beliefs, and their social connections. In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (published in 1948), the television set is not something you watch but something that watches you, at the behest of the secret police. The new media make this increasingly easier for a government to do. Whether a government will do this or not, does not depend on the media themselves. It is a matter for the larger politics of the society. In that respect, too, the findings of sociology, both for micro-sociology and macro-sociology, remain relevant for the electronic network age of the future.

I will conclude with an even more futuristic possibility. Up to now, the electronic media produce only weak IRs, because they lack most of the ingredients that make IRs successful: bodily presence is important because so many of the channels of micro-coordination happen bodily, in the quick interplay of voice rhythms and tones, emotional expressions, gestures, and more intense moments, bodily touch. It is possible that the electronic media will learn from IR theory, and try to incorporate these features into electronic devices. For instance, communication devices could include special amplification of voice rhythms, perhaps artificially making them more coordinated. Persons on both ends of the line could be fitted with devices to measure heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, perhaps eventually even brain waves, and to transmit these to special receivers on the other end-- individuals would receive physiological input electronically from the other person into one’s own physiology. Several lines of development could occur: first, to make electronic media more like real multi-physiological channel IRs; hence mediated interaction would become more successful in producing IRs, and could tend to replace bodily interaction since the latter would no longer be superior. Second, is the possibility of manipulating these electronic feeds, so that one could present a Goffmanian electronic frontstage, so to speak, making oneself appear to send a physiological response that is contrived rather than genuine. Ironically, this implies that traditional patterns of micro-interaction are still possible even if they take place via electronic media. More solidarity might be created; but also it might be faked. Interaction Rituals have at least these two aspects: social solidarity, but also the manipulated presentation of self. The dialectic between the two seems likely to continue for a long time.

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